Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block

(In keeping with the season I present a brief historical (leaving any deities out of it) understanding of exactly why Christianity was so damn successful.  Next week I will deal with the other question: what exactly was the reaction of the Roman government and why, a topic that has been seriously distorted because, well, the Empire no longer exists and Christianity does.)

Christianity is clearly a fusion of east and west, being a sort of religious hybrid produced by the intersection of Hebrew monotheism and the Greek mystery cult brought on by several hundred years of Greek control of Palestine. To some degree it is also a mix of oriental mysticism and Greek rationalism, inasmuch as the basic beliefs were later influenced by Stoicism and neo-Platonism. In essence, the Jews supplied the idea of the sole, ethical creator god, disconnected from the natural world, while the Greeks, through their mystery religion, contributed the notion of the dying and resurrected god. Paul and his associates made the new religion palatable for the world outside Judaea by stripping it of unappealing Jewish ritual, such as circumcision and dietary laws, and Greek rationalism then proceeded to refine the understanding of the godhead.

First of all, Christianity shared the ideas that had made the mystery cults so popular in Greece and later the Roman Empire. Traditional Greek and Roman religion was essentially civic in nature, primarily serving the community and devoid of any personal or inspirational quality. The mystery religion, which came in a variety of specific cults, did not deny the traditional gods but rather focused in on a single or tiny group of deities, providing the worshipper with a more personal and intimate relationship with divinity. The cults also involved emotional initiations and revealed knowledge, known only to the initiates, who gained in the cult at least a measure of equality with their richer and more powerful brethren. Christianity had no secrets but it rested on revealed knowledge and also offered a sense of special community within its ranks. Most all the mystery cults revolved around the central figure of a god or human who either literally or figuratively dies and is resurrected, thus providing an analogue of hope for the worshipper facing the inevitability of death. Further, the cults promised some reward, initially in this life, but by the end of the fifth century BC evidence appears suggesting the idea of judgment and reward in another life.

Christianity offered all these things but was something more than just another mystery religion. The Christian god was not just some Olympic retread, but the god of love, completely absorbed in those he had created. His death and resurrection was not simply some mythic event that had nothing to do with humanity beyond providing a message of hope. Rather, he became human and died specifically for humanity, a divine sacrifice that reveals an entirely novel concept of god. He was the god of all – rich, poor, slaves, free, men, women – something that was not always true of polytheist deities; for example, Mithraism, far and away the most popular cult in the Empire, was open only to men. And Christianity (at least until a powerful church emerged) cost nothing but commitment, while the polytheist religions required sometimes costly sacrifices, such as the bathing in bull’s blood incumbent on Mithraists.

Above all, this new god may have been open to everyone, but he definitely had a bias towards the poor and downtrodden. The rich and powerful had always had the edge in spiritual affairs, whether in the quality of their gifts or in outright control of the mechanisms of the religion. For the first time in history there was a god who favored the meek and chided the wealthy, and of course the vast majority of the in habitants of the Empire fit into the former category. This must have made for immense drawing power.

The religion also quickly developed the primitive ideas of judgment in the mystery cults into a full-blown system of reward and punishment in the next life and firmly rooted the judgment in the moral code inherited from Judaism. Obviously, promise of a better life in the next world is going to turn the heads of those whose life in this one is not that great, and while Christianity is born into an imperial society that constituted one of the more comfortable periods in history, in a few centuries life in the Roman Empire was going to become very unpleasant for most of its subjects. Now, the reward and punishment was based on the observance of a fairly strict ethical code, which might be expected to turn away potential converts. Most of us can get through life without committing homicide or adultery, but the thought crimes are very tough; “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is after all a rule even Jimmy Carter violated. But most people want a moral structure provided for them, and the basic rules provided by Christianity struck a favorable chord precisely because they were good rules. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments because they proclaim the basic laws absolutely necessary for a stable society.

So the demanding moral code was likely also an attraction of the new religion, which was offering reward in the afterlife for behavior that virtually all normal humans consider good and proper. On the other hand, not even a Mother Teresa could keep all these rules all the time, and what made the whole system feasible for the average Joe was the loophole: forgiveness. Were it not for the mechanism of contrition and forgiveness, the new religion would be making impossible demands and simply not work.

Extremely important in the triumph of Christianity is the simple fact that it happened in history. The core event of the religion, the death and resurrection of the god, did not take place in some distant mythic past, as in the mystery cults, but right there in the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of Tiberius (14-37). The first apostles of the new god had actually been there, first hand witnesses of the essential events of the religion. They heard the sermons and saw the miracles and the crucifiction, and some claimed experience of the resurrection itself. This gave the religion an impetus unmatched by the old belief systems.

Additionally, though it may have played something of a negative role in the spread, the exclusiveness of the monotheistic religion certainly helped preserve it intact. Syncretism, the identifying and combining of gods across cultural lines, was an inevitable component of polytheism and produced religious hybrids, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis. This simply could not happen to Christianity – at least in any serious way – because there were no other gods. This would produce a religious fanaticism unknown in antiquity outside the Hebrews, and that fanaticism presumably helped a bit. These were people who were willing to die for their god, and that kind of commitment surely had to impress potential adherents.

Finally, there is the element of coincidence: the charismatic preacher was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Without this huge area of political stability and easy communications the new religion would very likely not have been anything more than another eastern cult.  Two centruies earlier Rome was only beginning to nose into the eastern Mediterranean, and it is not all clear that the new religion, which would be perceived as a heresy by the Jews, would have survived the religiously reactionary Hasmonean kingdom.  Two centuries later and the religion would almost certainly not have the time to spread and develop its infrastructure before the western Empire collapsed.  It might survive in the east, but the conversion of the barbarian tribes becomes more problematic, and what would the history of the west be like without the Church to carry civilization through the Dark Ages?

"In hoc signo, Baby!"

“In hoc signo, Baby!”

Such are the reasons for the initial survival and spread of Christianity, but the final triumph and emergence of the new creed as the exclusive religion of the western world owed less to its nature than to political developments. Because of popular hostility and ultimately government obstruction (tune in next week), by the beginning of the fourth century Christians constituted perhaps only ten percent of the population, but for seemingly cynical political reasons Constantine the Great (sole emperor 324-337) embraced the religion. One might question the conviction of Constantine, who converted only on his deathbed, but the imperial family became Christian, and after Constantine every emperor but one (Julian the Apostate) was a member of the faith, thus making Christianity a powerful force in the government of the Empire. With the power of the sate behind it Christianity began a rapid expansion, as polytheists were subject to greater and greater persecution.

The collapse of the western Empire in the fifth century guaranteed the complete supremacy of Christianity, as the Church, now the only surviving governing structure in the west, emerged as a kind of international corporation manipulating the emerging barbarian kingdoms. The conversion of the Germanic tribes, especially the
Franks, resulted in a new warrior Christianity, which spelled doom for the surviving polytheists of Europe. The Prince of Peace had finally triumphed, albeit with a sword in his hand.

Ten Years Ago On a Lone Dark Night Someone Got Killed…

(On the occasion of the ten year anniversary of our invasion of Iraq I am posting an updated version of a piece written in December 2011 when the President announced the “end” of the war.)

On 19 March 2003 the United States bombed the Presidential Palace in Baghdad, beginning an eight year war in Iraq. Those eight years came at a stiff price. 4486 American military personnel were killed and 30,327 were wounded, 500 of them amputees, and it is estimated that some 20,000 veterans of the war now suffer some sort of psychological problem. 1487 coalition troops died, along with 281 media and aid workers; 10,569 were wounded. The war cost us about $1.7 trillion, and we are still paying, despite the fact that Iraq is now producing more oil than Iran. The war quickly eliminated the world-wide support for America in the wake of 9/11, fomented more anti-American feelings in the Muslim world, blew our reputation for moral behavior and distracted the US from serious operations against al-Qaeda.



The price for the Iraqis was much greater. The butcher’s bill is very hard to calculate, but while the media now regularly tosses off 100,000 dead, a variety of investigating NGOs has set that as the absolute minimum, suggesting 600,000 as more realistic; some estimates exceed a million. And they continue to die, as the expended depleted uranium ordinance and other toxins of modern war produce birth defects and cancers. Almost two million people fled the country, and a million internal refugees were produced. What little infrastructure the country possessed under Sadam was utterly destroyed, and it appears that the Sunni dictator has simply been replaced by a Shiite one. Meanwhile, all those billions in aid from the US flow into the pockets of the increasingly autocratic Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his completely corrupt government apparatus. Even their very country is falling apart, as the north has emerged as a more or less independent Kurdistan.

And what do we all get in return for this massive expenditure by the American and Iraqi people?



It is clear now, as it was to many then, that Saddam was absolutely no threat to anyone except his own people, and rather than “protecting” America the conflict has only exacerbated the terrorist problem and immensely strengthened the position of Iran. Iraq, once a bulwark against Iran (remember Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam?) is under its emerging Shia dictatorship already falling rapidly under Iranian influence. Only two states in the region have refused to go along with the Arab League and condemn the bloody Syrian government: Iran and Iraq. Indeed, Iranian aid to the Syrian government appears to be moving through Iraq. Under the guise of a program of reconciliation Baghdad is even releasing prisoners accused or convicted of murdering Americans, and as the economic frosting on this ineptly baked cake, it is primarily non-American companies that are signing up to exploit Iraqi resources, should that ever be possible.

Meanwhile, American diplomatic personnel will be hiding out in the biggest and most heavily fortified embassy on the planet, a target so protected that even American journalists are not allowed to see it. Bereft of troops, we will be hiring 5000 mercenaries to protect these people, further enhancing our wonderful image in the region. We get to look like an imperial power and pay mightily without enjoying any of the benefits associated with such a status. And outside the walls of Fortress America, euphemistically called the Green Zone, the life of the average Iraqi is, unbelievably, worse than it was under Sadam.

We got nothing out of the war. (Well, if you are Haliburton or Blackwater Mercenaries or the armaments industry, you actually got plenty, and the Pentagon certainly had a grand time.) Perhaps we learned something from this mistaken adventure? Not likely.



We promptly repeated the whole thing in Afghanistan. Trashing the Taliban for harboring our enemies was fine, but then, as if Iraq had never happened, we determined to create a democracy among people who have not a clue as to what that or nationhood means. The ill-advised and ineptly conducted war of aggression against Iraq appears almost sensible compared to our current hemorrhaging of lives and money for an unbelievably corrupt and ineffective government of an area that is even less of a country than the one time Ottoman province.

Even now, that blatant and shameless cheerleader for the war, the national media, is hypocritically discussing the mistakes of the war while saying virtually nothing of its own disgusting role. Perhaps as a measure of their ignorance and certainly of their arrogance, the neo-con architects of the war are unrepentant. Donald Rumsfield, who should be in prison for criminal incompetence as Secretary of Defense, at least had the good grace to resign and disappear. Dick Cheney, another of those hawks who somehow never found the time to serve (“I had other priorities in the 60s than military service”) and who appears to have been a prime mover in launching the war, even now claims it was justified, though he seems unable to say exactly why. (Perhaps I am biased: his wife put me on an academic black list of “Americans behaving badly.”) Paul Wolfowitz, recognized as the major architect of this stupid policy, continues to defend it, though Richard Pearle, another neo-con mover of the war, now denies he had any serious role, which is simply laughable. (Perhaps I am biased again: in a recent interview he responded to questions about the war by stating that looking back on history does not teach us anything. So much for my profession – and his intelligence or honesty.) These are the bozos who implemented a disastrous and dishonest foreign policy, yet they all still prosper, unlike the 4500 dead American soldiers and the entire country of Iraq.

traitor and idiot

traitor and idiot

So, happy anniversary. The date should be remembered, because this is when American seriously began to shed its historic image as the good guy, the protector of the weak and defender of freedom, the foe of brutality and torture. And in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali and god knows where else the beat goes on.

our democrat in Baghdad

our democrat in Baghdad

Stuff from Way Back #13: They Were All Good Samaritans

Mount Gerizim

Mount Gerizim

Christians are familiar with the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the clear implication of which is that most Samaritans were not good. Indeed, the Old Testament is invariably hostile to these people, who once constituted the inhabitants of Samaria, the northern half of the original Jewish kingdom. When the kingdom split in two, Samaria became known as Israel, while the southern area, centered on Jerusalem, took the name Judah. According to the Bible, Israel was a hotbed of polytheism and idol worship, in contrast to the ever pious Judah, and when Israel was overrun by the Assyrians in 732 BC, it was considered no great loss to the Chosen People. In fact, Samaritan refugees poured south, swelling the population of Judah, and a short time later King Hezekiah invited surviving Samaritans (the Assyrians were not exactly mellow in their occupation of foreign lands) to join the true Jewish state. Thus did the number of Samaritans shrink to a handful of loathesome characters by the time Jesus.

Well, as in a growing number of cases, archaeology has shown the Old Testament to be wrong, so wrong in fact that only deliberate falsification can explain the discrepancies. On the one hand, if there ever actually was an “empire” under David and Solomon, it consisted only of a few crude hilltop forts, and there is zero evidence outside the Bible itself that there ever was a Temple of Solomon. On the other hand, excavation on the summit of Mount Gerizim, near Nablus (ancient Shechem), has revealed a large enclosure (315 by 321 feet) dating to the sixth or fifth century BC. Huge deposits of animal bones and numerous inscriptions and artifacts clearly mark this as a sanctuary of Yahweh, flourishing at a time when any temple in Jerusalem would have been a small, simple building. This Samaritan temple was destroyed in 128 BC by the Hasmonean Jewish king John Hyrcanus, but the mountain remained sacred to the Samaritan sect of Judaism.

It would appear that until its destruction Gerizim, already a holy spot for Abraham, Jacob and Moses, was the actual center of Judaism, at least in terms of antiquity, magnificence and numbers of pilgrims. Archaeology had already revealed that most of what the Bible says about the state of Israel is blatantly false and clearly self-serving for Judah, and the discoveries on Gerizim reveal just how far the smear campaign against Samaria went and how much history was consciously distorted by the Jerusalem priests editing the Testament. The surviving Samaritan Torah in fact tells a very different story from the accepted Jewish canon, one suggesting that Judah was the real backwater of Judaism. But the survivors get to write the history.

So already in antiquity the Samaritan Jews were ill-treated, and time has not been kind to them, primarily because of their own doctrine: the Lord told them, “None of you may settle outside the promised land.” Consequently, while the Jews escaped various conquerors and catastrophes by spreading across the Middle East and Europe, the Samaritans were ground away by a variety of occupiers, especially the Byzantine and Turkish empires. And a traditional ban on intermarriage with others certainly did not help. The result was that by 1918 there were precisely 146 of them, but with the importation in 2004 of five Jewish women from the Ukraine and Siberia the group has since grown to about 700. Incredibly conservative, the Samaritans practice a sort of Judaism that essentially disappeared with the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, actually sacrificing hundreds of animals on Mount Gerizim to celebrate Passover.

We will never know how Judaism might have developed had the Assyrians not occupied Israel, but since the Samaritans were apparently in the majority, Shechem might have taken the place of Jerusalem as the epicenter of the religion. Certainly, all these discoveries have vividly demonstrated the utter unreliability of the Old Testament as an historical source, and in fact excavations in the West Bank (the only positive aspect of the modern Israeli occupation) and Jordan are undermining the historicity of the core event of the Torah and indeed Jewish belief – the Exodus. All the emerging archaeological evidence supports the idea that the people who became the Hebrews were indigenous to the area, a positive supplement to the complete absence of any inscriptional (the Egyptians were fanatic record keepers) or archaeological evidence that a group of proto-Jews came out of Egypt in the late second millennium. More and more Moses and company appear to be have been manufactured, like the slanders against Samaria.



And the amazing thing is that on the basis of these stories – at least in theory – a modern Jewish state was carved out of territory belonging to other people for the last two millennia. It apparently helps to have more than a billion Christians believing in your stories.

Ironies from Israel #4: The Embarrassing Benefactor

Well, this is not exactly an irony from Israel but rather an irony from the Third Reich that has put Israel in an ironic position.

Israel has a circle of honor for those who rescued Jews from the clutches of the Third Reich, whether it be one or thousands. Nominations are sent to a department of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial (built on land confiscated from Palestinian families, we must not forget), where the cases are checked and researched and then passed to a committee of ten Holocaust survivors, which makes the final decision. 24,356 people from forty-seven countries, five hundred of them Germans, have been so honored as the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

On the face of it, the case now facing the committee should be extremely simple. The candidate aided several dozen Jews and non-Jews in escaping from the Reich and set up Swiss bank accounts to help the exiles. On a number of occasions before the war he saved individual Jews from assault by Nazi thugs, and as an executive with the vast Skoda works in Czechoslovakia he aided resistance fighters and supported anti-German sabotage. He once took a truck to the Theresienstadt concentration camp and demanded workers for the Skoda factories, then driving them to a woods where they were released. All these activities are documented by witnesses, most especially the people (or their children) he helped to survive.

The only problem: the man’s name is Albert Göring.

Yes, the man in question was Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring’s little known younger brother. He was an apolitical engineer and a dapper womanizer, but despite his family connections he was also anti-Nazi and despised Hitler. Rather than turn a blind eye, however, he used those connections to rescue people from the system in which his brother was the number two man.

He obviously fits the bill for the honor of being a member of the Righteous Among the Nations, but his name is Göring, which might be a bit difficult for Israel to accept. But there is a way out. There is a rumor that Albert was actually the child of his mother and the family doctor, who was a Jew. This would give the Israelis an opportunity to avoid what might be an embarrassment in proclaiming a Göring one of the Righteous Among the Nations, since only non-Jews are eligible for the honor. There is, however, absolutely no evidence for this claim of a Jewish father, and even the Reichsmarschall would have had some difficulty protecting his brother had the Reich suspected Albert of carrying Jewish blood.

Confirmation of Albert Göring’s role in rescuing Jews would be a victory of truth over image, but unfortunately, Israel, more than most states, has allowed the image of its past to be built upon serious distortions of the truth, beginning with “A land without a people for a people without a land.” This must have been a baffling proclamation for the millions of Palestinians already living in the “land without a people.” Closer to the subject of this essay, missing from the list of the Swedish Righteous is the name Folke Bernadotte, who saved at least 1600 Jews (among tens of thousands of others) near the end of the war. But as a mediator during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1947-1948 Bernadotte earned the ire of the extremist Stern Gang, and in 1948 he was assassinated on the orders of its leaders, one of whom, Yitzhak Shamir, was later Prime Minister of Israel. Clearly, it would be awkward to encourage public review of Bernadotte’s life.

With Jews, Czech resistance fighters and others defending him Albert Göring was completely cleared by the allies, but out of loyalty to his family he refused to change his name, and even a talented engineer could not find work in Germany with the name Göring. He died a poor man in 1966, his deeds unknown to the world until an Australian writer published an account in 2009.